Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 17

The Fortune of War hotel, Circular Quay.

A small Waggafish, around the same size as the one caught and killed by Bill Wisely seven years ago.
I looked at the departing ambulance and realised this was the time to have a lengthy break. I wanted to know more about the background to The War, who actually started it, what factors from history or social problems contributed to it? I knew it had its roots deep in the creation of the Waggafish - the CSIRO experiment gone wrong - but how did Dr Greene really become involved? Where did Shelby come from? He wasn’t even a poet. The list went on. There were so many implications, so many innocent bystanders, victims, camp-followers and red-raggers. Deep at the heart of this whole episode in history was a dark mystery. What had really started the Poetry War and divided so many diverse people and set them at each other’s throats? Were the fishermen involved simply because a fish - admittedly a fish like no other - was involved?

I was asleep in the Halvorsen when I heard a knock on the window. I parted the curtain and saw Michael Wilding looking in, his nose pressed to the glass. “Can I have a word, Ken?” he asked. I looked at my watch. It was 6 am. Normally I would have told him to go away, but there was something about his expression and voice that concerned me. I hadn’t seen him for awhile, and had noticed his absence. I got up, put on my dressing gown and let him in.

“It’s poetry,” he said. “Poetry and poets.” Michael ran his fingers through his hair and sighed loudly. “I’ve just about had enough.”

I knew that Wilding wasn’t poetry’s greatest fan, yet he had made the effort to come to The Island. His support for a couple of old friends was soon extended, without fanfare, to all the poets during the war. He had become a popular figure: quiet, observant, and with a dark sense of humour.

“Poets. You can’t live with them, and without them your life is less complicated and less likely to unravel spontaneously. Even the most well-adjusted poets are fucked-up. They are territorial and competitive. Secretly, they loathe each other and can’t stand the success of their peers. In private they study literary theory and test the waters of radical reform with regards to style and syntax. In public they feign indifference to poetics and theory, preferring to hit the piss. At festivals they read, yet never attend the readings of other poets on the program. They always get small audiences, and complain bitterly about this fact. They fear the arrival of a new, young talent. Poets are paranoid, bleak individuals who live their lives in a permanent state somewhere between melancholia, acute anxiety and depression. When they laugh, it is usually a nervous reaction to the onset of mania. Bank managers, Writers Festival Directors and most literary journal editors despise them. There is no Prime Minister’s Award for poetry. This is not an accident or oversight. The Prime Minister does not understand poets or poetry, nor do his advisors. They see it as subversive, divisive, and totally unintelligible. All poetry since Banjo Patterson is regarded with cynicism and contempt. No one buys it, hardly anyone reads it, teachers are tyrannised by it and students are afraid of it. Poetry is a threat. When I was at the University of Sydney, whenever I saw a poet coming up the stairs or into the cafeteria, I would hide. Their conversation is stilted. They take minimalism to a new level. Mostly they talk about themselves, and their essays are full of symbolist jargon. Romantic crap. Poets aren’t happy with just writing the stuff, they need to be known as poets. Leonard Cohen once said that poetry isn’t a career, it’s a verdict. Cohen was right. The Poetry War has been brewing for many years. It was only a matter of time. An ego time-bomb.”

When Wilding stopped talking, he stood up and adjusted his tie. “Thanks for listening, Ken,” he said, then he walked out of the cabin and onto the wharf. I watched as he walked off down the beach, kicking at driftwood.

This was the last straw. I really had to get off The Island. I knew I couldn't leave for good until everything had been resolved. I had to get to Sydney for one more interview. All the travel was wearing me down. I asked Frank Webb if he’d take over as correspondent for a couple of days, but he swore at me and opened his bible. I asked Geoff Page and Wallace-Crabbe, but they pretended they hadn’t heard. When I asked Geoffrey Lehmann, he ripped the notebook and pen from my hand and said “When do I start?”

I took the Halvorsen to Church Point, picked up my car and drove to Sydney, knowing reports from The Island were going to be in good hands.

I felt like a late breakfast and a drink. I decided to go to The Fortune of War Hotel at Circular Quay. It was the only early opener I trusted for a decent feed. I had a pink gin and ordered bacon and eggs. I happened to read a coaster on the bar: “The Fortune has a colourful reputation, which includes being the first and last port of call for generations of Australian soldiers involved in theatres of conflict.” Oh just perfect, I thought as someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Shelton Lea. “So where have you been hiding Shelly?”  “I’ve been here for three months, reading poetry at dawn every day for drinks. They gave me a room and now I’m the poet in residence.” I filled Shelton in on The Island war, but he was right up on it. Evidently Jordie Albiston had been commissioned to write an opera based on the goings on at The Island. Shelton said: “I asked her who had commissioned it. She told me she’d been contacted by Kate Jennings, who is working for this patron who loves poetry and music.” And who was this patron? Did he happen to be an American? “Oh yes, I think he is from the U.S. The opera company has a weird name: “Ooga-Booga-Inc.” I mentioned the name Frederick Seidel. “Yeah, that’s it! Ooga-Booga Seidel!” Shelton said with a diabolical spasm of laughter. After a few more beers I asked him how he thought the war had started. He told me this story.

“I actually remember the first blow in the war. Yes, that's right. I happened to be there. I was up at Brooklyn when this bloke came by in an old beaten up tinny and asked if I wanted to go fishing with him. Said his name was Bill. Well, we went way up the river and Bill started cutting up pillies and throwing them over the side for burley. We were using squid for bait. Bill said he had a frozen supply in the pub freezer. It was nearly black but he reckoned it was okay. It must’ve been, because within a half hour Bill pulled in a beautiful mulloway of about twenty pounds. Then he got another one, but half way in Bill thought he’d lost him. When he pulled his line up there was just the jewie's head left on the hook. Fucking Noah’s ark, said Bill. So he throws out another squid and he’s on again, this time he pulled in this incredibly ugly looking fish.

It had a huge head full of teeth, a red coloured body with spikes all over it, and yet it was pretty sleek looking, a real predator. Bill pulled it in, luckily it was a small one. It stared at us with pure hate in its eyes. After a minute or so the fish started flapping around in the belly of the boat. Bill asked me to pass him an old plank he kept under the seats. I handed it to him and he went to work on that little red horror. He smashed it to a pulp and growled and carried on something terrible. After it was over, I asked him what kind of fish it was. He said “I didn’t think I’d ever see one in the Hawkesbury, fucking red swine of a thing. Fucking dog of a fish. It’s a Wagga. A fucking Wagga-Fish!” “So that’s how it started,” Shelly said. The next day Bill had a fresh supply of planks in the boat. “The red tide has turned,” Bill Wisley said, and glared at me. “You fucking idiot.” “And that's the story of the first blow in the poetry war, Ken. Like I said, it’s a mystery.”

Debriefing to me about poets and poetry seemed to have done Michael Wilding the world of good. When I saw him on my return from Sydney, he was looking much happier. Never had I met a man for whom poetry had become such a burden. He mentioned that he thought the war would go on indefinitely, but I told him the Waggaists were a spent force. There'd be no more torture or bats, no more spear guns or darts - and more to the point - no more chicken wire mouth guards. We were safe as long as we didn’t dangle our feet over the wharf. At first Wilding didn’t seem at all convinced by any of this, but as I spoke he seemed to warm to my enthusiasm and positive approach. Just then Geoffrey Lehmann walked up with his tape recorder and notebook. He had a pencil behind his ear, and he was wearing a fedora with a press card stuck in the band. Wilding took one look at him and said “Another poet who thinks verse is in bed with the media, this is just fucking great!”

Late that afternoon, while waiting for Wilding to meet me on the wharf, I noticed a red beam of light coming across the water. When I saw it, I was relieved when Wilding appeared. He was carrying two deck chairs, staring down at the planks in the jetty, so he didn’t notice the red beam until he sat down alongside me. We both watched as the light grew brighter. “Oh, but of course,” Michael said with a cutting resignation, ‘It’s heading in towards the Island. What next? A Captain Cook River Cruise with poetry? A tour of The Island to see poets living out Lord of the Flies? A delegation from the Australia Council come to see that their Poetry War Grant is being used properly?”

The light was way out to sea and I knew it would take at least a half an hour to arrive. Michael said: “It’s a contemporary abomination of the light from the West Egg, a moving light coming straight at us, and a red light just in case we miss the point. West Egg has merged with East Egg and they have turned into the Bad Egg.” Eventually it became clear that a small craft was navigating its way in through the reefs at Flint and Steel, hitting the throttle and roaring towards Wilding’s head.

As we watched the red light approaching, Wilding broke the silence. “What’s that?” he asked.

A fish had washed up on the shore next to the wharf and had been left high and dry on a seaweed-covered rock. It had most likely been stung to death by man-o-war jellyfish in a trawler’s pocket. “It’s a large black sole,” I told him. “Ah, that’s me, a Black Soul.” Michael smiled at his own ironic metaphor. On closer inspection, this fish was an evil-looking creature, with fangs and hollow eye-sockets. It was astonishing. Geoffrey Lehmann wanted to take it and nail it to the wharf, but Wilding told him to leave it where it was. “It’s the Poetry Fish,” he said. “It will devour itself soon enough.”

It was Wilding who first started living on the Island, long before the citadel had been built. At first he’d rented a house, then after years of living there peacefully (except for the times Rudi Krausman swam to shore from his yacht, found his house and climbed in through the window), he’d built his own bungalow. This had been sold and torn down when Seidel offered him twenty times the market price. Back then he was like Gatsby, renting a house in “one of the strangest communities in the country, the long slender riotous island which extends itself due east...”

Wilding looked up almost expecting to see the two enormous eggs that had haunted Gatsby. I mentioned Gatsby to Wilding, and he shook his head sadly. “No, oh nothing like that. Gatsby’s light reading, a relief really, no, nothing like Gatsby.” He smiled at the thought of “something lighter” as we sat back on our deck chairs, watching the red beam coming towards us bringing god only knows what. I asked him what was really on his mind. “What's on my mind, Kenneth? It’s always the same thing, really, in one form or another. Paradise Lost. It keeps repeating itself,  along with Paradise Regained, it’s the story of our lives.”

We were blinded as the Haines Hunter pulled into the wharf. There were civilized accents, a shuffling and bumping, then a man with a rope. As our eyes adjusted to the redness and the bright light, we both recognised the noble dome of David Malouf’s head. “Is that you David?” “It certainly is. And it’s a surprise and a delight to see you here, Ken.” “He thinks you’ve been dead for years Ken, that’s why he seems surprised,” said Wilding.  “And Michael Wilding! This is a wonderful reception!” “Okay, don’t get too carried way,” said Wilding. “And who’s the wonder in the cape hiding in the cabin?” “He’s not hiding,” Malouf said. “He’s preparing for his lecture.” Michael looked crestfallen. “What lecture would that be?”  “The Herbert Blaiklock Memorial Lecture, honouring the poet Henry Kendall.”  “Oh right, good god. What the hell next?” said Wilding in an anguished tone. “Okay, then, who is this fellow?”

A hunched  figure wearing a crumpled red cape emerged from the cabin of the Haines Hunter. “Don’t you recognise him?” asked Malouf. “It’s John Milton.”

At the mention Milton’s name a pelican, coming home late, misjudged its landing perch, overflew the pylon, and crashed into the water. A swirl, a wake of phosphorescent plankton, and a shower of whitebait escaping in terror. A Wagga had taken the pelican down by one leg at first. What followed was a horrible scene. Feathers flecked with red light and blood, moans of anguish from Wilding, cries of distressed alarm from Malouf, and finally the undisturbed, mirror of the tide again. Then the red cloaked figure of Milton, one hand shading his eyes, gazing knowingly at the black water.

K. Slessor, the Front

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